Collection: Barjeel Art Foundation
Courtesy: XVA Gallery
The current "Arab Express" exhibition at Mori Art Museum (until 10/28) has been advertised as "the first exhibition of its kind ever to be held in Japan." A showcase of painting, photography, video and installation works made in the 2000s by about 30 artists, such as Halim Al-Karim’s photographs illustrating "a stereotype image of Arab females as seen from the outside (but not really existing)", it is a rather ambitious show introducing high-quality works of art. I would further say that the entire program, including also separately held lectures, was put together with sufficient attention also to visitors who encounter Arab art for the first time. Nonetheless the exhibition somehow failed to draw me in, for the simple reason that I saw it right after catching the Documenta and Paris Triennale shows in Europe.
In addition to its home turf in Kassel, Documenta has been held at venues in Kabul, Cairo, Alexandria, and Banff (Canada). The fact that places like Afghanistan and Egypt were chosen indicates that hosts and organizers are highly concerned about the upheaval in the Middle East that continues well into this century.
In Kassel, for example, American artist Michael Rakowitz showed his "Stone Books". These recreations of books damaged by fire during the bombing of the Fridericianum (main Documenta venue) in 1941 were made with the help of stone carvers from Afghanistan and Italy, using rocks from the Bamiyan area where Buddhist statues were destroyed by the Taliban in 2001. Mexican artist Mario Garcia Torres introduced a video piece based on his visit to the remains of a guest house in Kabul that Italian artist Alighiero Boetti ran in the 1970s. It is the same place that inspired Boetti’s representative work "Mappa" – unveiled at Documenta 5 in 1972, and as a matter of fact, exhibited here as well in a different hall.
Lebanese artist and playwright Rabih Mroue (who had participated in the "Tokyo International Arts Festival" in 2007) presented works in various formats including lecture performance, video installation and flip book, all dealing with the ongoing battle in Syria. Videos the artist downloaded from the Internet include one of a man who filmed a tank with his cell-phone, and was shot after his line of vision had met the eyes of one of the soldiers. The images shake as the man tumbles down with the phone in his hand, until things come to a rest and only the ground remains visible. While I can't say whether it’s all real or staged, the sense of reality that footage is charged with is definitely strong enough to exert a striking effect.
Artists from the Middle East and works dealing with actual situations in the Islam/Arab realm prominently featured also at the Paris Triennale. Chilean Alfredo Jaar presented a double-channel video themed around the assassination of Osama bin Laden. Images as transmitted around the world by the Western media, showing President Obama and his key players as they watch from the White House Situation Room how the al-Qaeda leader is killed in May 2011, are shown as stills on a screen on the right, while another screen is installed on the left, right at the point the VIP officials are staring at. This screen is of course showing nothing at all. It is a brilliant work that illustrates through the contrast of a colored and a white (blank) screen how enormous the power in the hands of the inner circle of the US government, and how privileged and monopolistic the vision of these super powers is.
Swiss Thomas Hirschhorn exhibited a work that is definitely not suited for children. On a touch screen resembling that of a smartphone, fingers – supposedly the artist’s – move around quickly and trigger one after another an endless number of photographs. They all show victims shot at demos, or killed otherwise during wars, conflicts or terrorist bomb attacks. In other words, all bodies appearing in the images are dead bodies. The fingertips move spontaneously to zoom in and out, and when continuing to watch all those punctured trunks and faces, torn hands and feet for a while, one can feel how one’s sense of reality is gradually getting lost. While not necessarily all shot in Arab regions, like the works of Mroue and Jaar, these are simple yet powerful images that investigate into the relationship between violence and visual representation/perception today.
At both Documenta and Paris Triennale, the attention of both artists and organizers was focused on "actuality", and this is exactly where the Mori Art Museum takes a different approach, as their exhibition seeks to showcase "contemporary Arab history". In grammatical terms, if the former represented a "present progressive form", the latter would be "present perfect". To point out one concrete example, the works shown at the "Arab Express" exhibition do deal with war in the Middle East, but none of them refers to the "Arab Spring" that began at the end of 2010 and is still going on today.
I am, however, not criticizing Mori Art Museum for that. The difference in geographical, historical, social and psychological distance from the Arab world between Europe and Japan is just too big. Here in the Far East, in order to understand the backgrounds of the "Arab Spring" we probably need an exhibition like "Arab Express" as a stepping-stone first, and as I mentioned above, in this respect "Arab Express" is perfectly fitted for this purpose. In addition, displays at art museums are much different from those at international art shows in terms of character and production process. When putting together a show focusing on a certain geographic region – especially when it’s "the first of its kind [in Japan]", building it around a core of works with a certain reputation (which, for that matter, have already been made and exhibited) has to be considered as an orthodox method. It doesn't happen often that artists are commissioned to produce new works, such as in the case of Mario Garcia Torres and his work for Documenta.
This makes me curious to see how much "actuality" an international art show staged in Japan offers, or aims to offer. It can of course be about a region that is much closer to Japan in a geographical, historical, social and psychological sense. Coincidently, the Echigo-Tsumari Art Triennale and "Water and Land – Niigata Art Festival 2012" have both just kicked off in Niigata, so my next report will be on these shows and things I noticed there.
(To be continued)
June 29, 2012
Ozaki Tetsuya / Editor in chief / REALTOKYO